Once prized by Martha Washington, 'creepy' wax figurines gain new, restored life

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By Maggie Fazeli Fard
Thursday, February 24, 2011

An unassuming stack of white cardboard boxes sits tucked away in a small, climate-controlled room on the second floor of a makeshift office building in Georgetown. Visitors rarely pass through this corner of the historic Tudor Place estate on 31st Street NW, and those who do likely don't think twice about the boxes' contents.

Leslie Buehler, though, knows better than to dismiss them.

"You're going to be amazed when you see what's inside," says Buehler, Tudor Place's executive director, giddy as she opens each box.

"Amazed" isn't quite the word that springs to mind.

Inside the boxes is a 228-year-old collection of wax figurines - a man, a woman, a nursemaid with a baby, and numerous barnyard animals. The male figurine's head clearly has been severed and reattached. The woman is missing an arm and a leg, and a muslin slip is visible beneath a tattered silk gown. The nursemaid figurine, too, is missing a leg, and Buehler points out that its head was once bashed in.

The animals are in the best condition - just one goat has lost an ear.

The figurines are a part of a tableau set in a wood-framed box given to Martha Washington in 1783 by its creator, Samuel Fraunces, a friend of the Washington family and a man obsessed with waxwork.

Overall, the tableau looks like a comedie grotesque of a Weebles playhouse.

"When these were on display, people were either enamored or repulsed by them," Buehler says. "Because they're creepy."

Buehler flips a switch and the scene becomes even creepier.

An X-ray of the male figurine - about the size of a Ken doll - lights up. Like a voodoo doll, its beeswax frame is crisscrossed with pins of varying lengths and thickness. Metallic thread, running throughout its costume, evokes a halo. The head is hollow, giving the appearance of a brain cavity. Glass beads for eyes are eerily visible in the film negative, peering out through the X-ray.

Even wax figurines in the best condition are "strange to the modern eye," Buehler admits.

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© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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